February 16, 2017
Garfield gets (a little) serious
The iconic cartoon cat lends a paw to the Shelter Pet Project
Who knew he had it in him? Garfield—that famous (and famously self-centered) cartoon cat, who’s been known to spar with his canine housemate Odie and torture his owner Jon—actually cares about his fellow creatures.
The proof? He’s lending his considerable marketing mojo to the Shelter Pet Project, an initiative backed by The HSUS, Maddie’s Fund and the Ad Council that aims to make people aware of the awesomeness awaiting them at their local animal shelters. Having previously conquered the funny pages (“Garfield” is the world’s most widely syndicated comic strip) as well as movies, TV and all manner of merchandise, Garfield began appearing in Shelter Pet Project videos and public service announcements in 2015, urging people to find their new best friends by adopting from a shelter.
It might seem like Garfield has always been with us, but he actually sprang from the mind and pen of cartoonist Jim Davis, who launched the character in 1978. In this edited interview with James Hettinger of Animal Sheltering magazine, Davis reflects on Garfield, Odie and the other pets in his life—and why he’s using his talents to help end pet homelessness.
It was such a perfect fit for the characters. Both Garfield and Odie were abandoned by their owners—Garfield was left to fend for himself in an Italian restaurant before he was eventually adopted by Jon Arbuckle, and Odie was left behind by his owner, Jon’s former roommate, Lyman. (There are various theories on what became of Lyman.) The characters have enjoyed all the comforts of home, and they hope to help their fellow pets enjoy the same.
Because they’re animated and colorful, they can capture the audience’s attention. Because they’re funny, they can deliver an important message with a bit of humor. And because they’re pets, they can relate to the plight of the shelter pet.
Yes, it’s true; Garfield is not always so altruistic! But working on this project, I learned that Garfield and Odie genuinely do care about cats and dogs. Now, while it’s true Garfield’s had some harsh words about dogs, he recognizes that he and Odie are lucky to be members of a loving household, and he believes all pets should have the same good fortune.
I grew up on a farm, and there were always about 25 barn cats roaming around. I was fascinated by their different personalities and temperaments. They were all very aloof and independent. We also raised milch cows and I had a few I named, but obviously, they weren’t really pets. Garfield is pretty much an amalgam of all the cats I remembered from my childhood.
The first time I was asked this, I was surprised, because in my mind, all cats are orange. Of course, I know they’re not, but for some reason that ginger color just stuck in my mind and I filed it under “this is the color of a cat.”
Not really a story per se. I love lasagna—I figured everyone did.
Well, let’s face it. Dogs have lots of personality. And dogs are more giving. A dog will come when you call it. A cat will walk the other way. A dog will show off—a cat will take a nap. So, it’s understandable that dogs were getting all the good gigs. After my failure at getting a bug in the comics (“Gnorm Gnat”), I did take a hard look at what was working on the comic pages, and there was Snoopy, Marmaduke, Belvedere—but no cats. That was a “Eureka!” moment. I knew cats!
I’ve always felt there was room for all sorts of humor, but I just couldn’t see changing Garfield for the shock value. There are a lot of moms who feel safe when they put a Garfield cartoon on TV—I wouldn’t want to break that trust. I think Garfield is appealing because his humor is understated—he’s not trying to hit you over the head with a sledgehammer. His humor deals with universal topics—eating and sleeping. Everyone can relate.
Like Garfield, I love lasagna, coffee and cat naps. But unlike Garfield, I don’t hate Mondays. Like Jon, I can be laid back. I also had dating disasters similar to Jon’s.
Are you kidding? Everything about his success has surprised me! I was thrilled just to be syndicated. In my wildest dreams I hoped maybe there’d be a book or a coffee mug, but I never imagined Garfield would resonate the way he did. It’s all about timing! I am still amazed and humbled that people love the characters. I try not to analyze it too much—it might go away.
There’s no such thing as a spoiled pet! Indulgence is a good thing! Belly rubs make everyone happy! Too much love is never enough! (Garfield could go on … how much time do you have?)